Yep, I finally got around to finishing A Dance with Dragons. And, to my astonishment, it was actually pretty damn good! It helped that it was preceded by the Game of Thrones equivalent of a pile of poo (I'm sorry A Feast for Crows, but you just weren't that interesting). But, more seriously, I think that its quality was about comparable to A Clash of Kings in terms of cool stuff that happened and characterization that occurred.
Now, I'm definitely going to talk about this, but I wanted to point out that I'm going to do two things with this review. First off, I am going to review it by viewpoint character. Every character that gets a chapter will get some commentary from me about if he/she was interesting and how they went. The other thing is that I'm going to avoid major spoilers. I will share what I think of as “minor” spoilers (such as where the characters are and their general goals in the book), but events of crazy awesome will be at most hinted at, no more.
Without further ado, I present A Dance with Dragons!
You're goddamn right, Jon's back, and he's more epic than ever. When we last saw Jon, he had near single-handedly taken the shittiest rangers in all the lands to beat back a Wildling army worthy of Mordor, long enough for one Stannis Baratheon to show up with all of his knights to lay the smackdown. Now in ADWD, we find Jon as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, balancing carefully on a path between supporting Stannis' claim to the throne and preparing the Wall for the invasion of the Others.
Jon's chapters are freaking awesome. Through his station at the Wall, we see how difficult leadership can be and, by god, Jon is going to stick to his principles no matter what. He has always been an admirable guy like that, and that aspect of his character bleeds through especially strongly in ADWD. Watching him try to recruit the Wildlings to his side while placating the Night's Watch veterans while trying to retain Stannis' help while doing his best to stay out of the gargantuan war happening to the south of him while preparing to repel this fictional universe's equivalent of a Nazgul army... This is one shitty situation. Ancient Night's Watch fortresses are prepared, factions are approached for help, a lot of people tell Jon he knows nothing, and WHOA HOLD ON. Stuff actually happens in this book?? Thank you, George R.R. Martin!
Oh wait, this is the Feast for Crows shit that I remember. Yes, unfortunately the worst part of ADWD is that it somehow manages to make Tyrion Lannister chapters uninteresting. The sad part is that he starts out so well. Tyrion has just killed his father and escaped onto a ship heading to Daenerys is on. After a great deal of drinking and whoring, Tyrion decides that h should go find Dany and serve as an impish Machiavellian advisor, kicking her in the pants to go conquer Westeros with his help. Holy. Shit. Epic, right?
Then we get a truly grueling amount of chapters where Tyrion apparently decides to take the longest route possible to Dany. Seriously. This is a spoiler, but he never even really gets there. We meet some thoroughly uninteresting characters, a few that are really important, and then suffer through him learning how to entertain people with his dwarfishness. It's not all bad; he does start manipulating people like badass old Tyrion near the end. But most of it is one interminable trek after another where nothing of real note seems to happen. That and an enormous number of people giving him dwarf noogies (though this is awesome; it is apparently a tradition on this continent to rub a dwarf's head for good luck, and it happens a LOT).
I've always been a huge fan of the Onion Knight. There's something about his character that is just really cool. He's like everyone's favorite uncle, if uncles were regularly faced with starvation and death. Davos never lets up, and his personality is so solid that you're able to see a lot of what happens in the series through how relaxing his chapters can feel.
Anyways, Davos is given a mission from Stannis. He is tasked to approach White Harbor, the wealthiest city and vassal of House Stark, as a diplomat and envoy in order to convince them to swear fealty to Stannis and ally together against the factions who betrayed Robb Stark (Lannisters, Freys, Boltons) and killed most of the Stark household. He is presented with a political situation so bizarre as to seem Shakespearean in the theatricality of it. Needless to say, it is awesome, and the results have a huge impact in what happens in ADWD. Yes! Things happen AGAIN! Oh, I love you so, George R.R. Martin!
Goddamnit! Yes, dear readers, it was a trap and, despite the sheer marvelousness of Dany in the previous few books, George R.R. Martin manages to make her a pain in the ass in this one. Now, let me clarify, it isn't that things don't happen in Dany's chapters that makes her irritating. It is the fact that the things that happen with her don't seem to really matter in the larger conflict, and the fact that she starts acting against her character.
We find Dany managing the city of Meereen and doing her best to be a benevolent queen. She rejects the slave trade, manages alliances with nearby cities, hires mercenaries, etc etc. But because it involves nations and factions that we don't know and who don't appear to have any relevance to anything happening on Westeros, I just lost interest after a while. It doesn't help that Dany starts to compromise and give in to pressure. That's right, the character most famous for being the uncompromising determinator starts to go back to being a scared little girl. Then she chooses to sleep with a thoroughly unlikable character, marry another, and generally be kind of stupid.
But it ends with her in a much better place than she was before, so there is hope that she'll do something useful when Tyrion shows up in the next book.
This pretty much sums up the weirdness of the average Bran chapter
Bran Stark is one of those characters who I hated for a long time. From the moment he was crippled, I replaced the name “Bran” with “That-Interminable-Whiner-Cripple-Kid”. He just wouldn't shut up. And the references to his purported powers were so cryptic that I just couldn't care less.
Needless to say, this changes in a huge way in ADWD. I wanted more Bran chapters. A lot more. We encounter Bran where we left off, with him passing the Wall and going deep into the land of the Others, searching for the Children of the Forest. All I can say without spoiling more is that he finds the Others. And he finds the Children of the Forest. And a lot of awesome and weird shit happens that indicates that Bran might have the most important viewpoint of them all.
I have to admit that I don't have much to say about Arya. While she was on Westeros, she was one of the coolest characters of them all. But in Braavos (a city in the middle of nowhere on the-continent-we-don't-care-about), Arya continues her assassin training surrounded by characters who aren't interesting who we don't give a second fiddle about. If you like this growth in her character, then you'll love her chapters in ADWD. But because I've read far too many books about training characters to become assassins, and because I have no connection to what is happening around her, I really don't care. I skimmed all of her chapters.
Our first new viewpoint character, Asha is the first and only Greyjoy we've met who is actually likable. She's a badass girl who grew up into a sexy, independent woman, all within the most grotesquely masculine culture since the Vikings. And she owns it. In ADWD, we find her within the occupied castle of Deepwood Motte (a Stark vassal located near the western shore by the Greyjoys). She gets the second hottest sex scene of the series. She weighs her chances, what with a hostile uncle now in charge back at home, takes her men, and decides what she wants to do.
She then joins up with another group and serves as a viewpoint character for the movements of one of the more important characters in the series. But I can't tell you who without spoiling things. Regardless, Asha has a lot go on with her point of view, and I found her a thoroughly enjoyable character to read about.
Another new viewpoint character, Quentyn Martell is less interesting. An uncharismatic heir of House Martell, he is sent by his father to marry Daenerys. Unlike Tyrion, Quentyn actually makes it to Dany and presents her with an offer; if she will marry Quentyn, Dorne will give Dany the military that she needs in order to take Westeros. In exchange, Quentyn becomes king and Dorne the paramount House of the realm.
Dany's answer is for you to figure out when you read the book. As for Quentyn's character, I kind of liked him. I say it like that because he doesn't really have much to him. He isn't handsome, clever, or skilled in combat. What he is is dogged. He sticks to his guns. And his men listen to his orders, even though you can tell that they might not necessarily impress them too much. Quentyn isn't the most interesting character we've ever seen in the Game of Thrones series, but I found him fairly interesting on the whole.
Yes, Theon Greyjoy isn't dead. Some may groan at this revelation, but I thought it was pretty cool. The thing is that, even though Theon has always been rather annoying in his own way, he has changed. He is held captive by House Bolton (which is apparently the House for all of the creepy assholes of the realm). He has been thoroughly tortured and abused. He doesn't even identify himself as being a Greyjoy for a long time.
But he starts to become a better person. And this makes Theon perhaps the most deeply characterized person in the series, turning from arrogant douchebag into defeated trash into something more. On top of that, Theon manages to serve as a viewpoint character into the machinations of the Boltons, the Freys, and a bunch of other Houses besides. This made him one of the most interesting characters to read about and, on top of his characterization, made me genuinely hope that he turns out okay in the end.
Barristan the Bold gets his own viewpoint chapters but, unlike aforementioned others, Barristan's kinda suck. For whatever reason, Barristan shifts from the wise old Gandalf-like father figure for Dany to that-one-old-guy who stands in the corner and never says anything. Even when Dany makes poor decisions, he never says a word unless prompted and, even then, he doesn't say much beyond, “Make queenly decisions so I can keep standing prettily.”
He does end up taking some initiative in the end but... Frankly, he spends most of it whining to himself about how “true knights only do things that are pure and righteous”. Which kind of drains some of the awesomeness out of the asskicking he delivers. For someone who seemed more than willing to provide his thoughts and act independently before he was made head of the 'Queensguard', Barristan the Bold seemed to turn rather timid.
Victarion Greyjoy pulls a less interesting Tyrion. Spends most of the book traveling to Dany. Doesn't get there by the end.
Cersei Lannister has a small handful of rather interesting chapters where her back is against the wall and we actually, finally, see her overly prideful facade crack, revealing a character who we can actually care about who isn't a power-crazed harpy bitch.
Melisandre gets a chapter which is really cool. And everything that happens with her is really interesting new information. But she only gets a chapter, so her importance is fleeting.
Jaime Lannister gets a chapter where he dashes off with the only person he'd predictably dash off with.
Areo Hotah (the blandest character in the series whose only purpose is to give us eyes into what's happening in Dorne) shows us that Dorne is secretly planning some really epic and crazy shit.
And then, finally, a new character named Griff turns out to be someone who will shake up the world of Game of Thrones in an enormous way. Then he begins an invasion. Really cool stuff.
Altogether, I really enjoyed A Dance with Dragons and recommend it to those who enjoyed the series before A Feast for Crows. Yeah, Dany and Tyrion's chapters are a bit disappointing, but so much happens elsewhere that it didn't bug me that much. When/if other people read it, I'm looking forward to hearing some other thoughts out there!